Heroes’ Day (Laurent Kabila): January 16
Heroes’ Day is a public holiday in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
On May 17, 1997, Laurent Kabila took control of the country formerly known as Zaire, suspending the constitution and renaming the country to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Having overthrown the previous dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, some heralded Kabila as a much-needed change for the country. But other people concluded that Kabila was no better than Mobutu, assassinating Kabila in 2001. Today, the government sets aside one of two Heroes’ Days to remember Kabila.
History of Heroes’ Day in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Mobutu Sese Seko ruled Zaire with the strong belief that nationalism was of the utmost importance. Upon taking the reigns of leadership, Mobutu set about doing all he could to remove any colonial influences and cultural infiltrations.
He set up a one-party system and worked with Western agencies to bring aid to Zaire. However, most suspected that Mobutu was not only skimming off the top of aid packages, but also was deeply involved with efforts of economic exploitation of the country’s resources. As debt and inflation took over in the 1980s, unrest grew. Eventually, he was expelled by rebel forces led by Laurent Kabila.
Many saw Kabila as a refreshing change after nearly 32 years of Mobutu’s dictatorial rule. Kabila, a former Marxist, changed the name from Zaire to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and shortly afterwards assigned all military, executive, and legislative power to himself, pending a new constitution. But his allies in Rwanda and Uganda soon turned against him and formed the Rally for Congolese Democracy (RCD), believing that Kabila wasn’t dedicated to bringing true democracy to the country.
Kabila had promised new elections by 1999, but no elections were held. Charges of corruption were made and armed clashes took place between the RCD and Kabila’s military. A tentative peace deal was brokered in July 1999, but it did little to quell tensions in the country. The RCD rebellion grew larger, finally leading to the assassination of Kabila on January 16, 2001 by one of his bodyguards, Rashidi Kasereka.
After Kabila’s assassination, his son, Joseph, took control of the country. Joseph Kabila had a statue of his father erected in the capital, Kinshasa, and Heroes’ Day organized to honor Kabila.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Heroes’ Day Traditions, Customs and Activities
Heroes’ Day is divided into two days in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; January 16 is dedicated to honoring Joseph Kabila and January 17 to Patrice Lumumba.
The people of the Democratic Republic have mixed feelings about Joseph Kabila and honoring him as a hero. While many were hopeful that Kabila would bring much-needed democratic change to the country, others were cynical, viewing Kabila as doing no better than the previous dictator, Mobutu.
The New York Times captured this dichotomy shortly after Kabila’s assassination.
Gilbert Sibenda told the New York Times on January 21, 2001: ”A man can’t be perfect. There are some good parts and some bad parts. I think he tried to improve people’s lives. But he was too stubborn to accept anybody else’s opinion. If he wanted to punish people, he simply had them killed.”
Today, many of the country’s citizens still honor Kabila as a hero on Heroes’ Day while others scoff at the idea of Kabila being a hero.